In September, the results of a study by psychologists at the University of Buffalo were published in the journal Psychological Science which found that reading fiction improves empathy. Reporting on the study for the British newspaper The Guardian, Alison Flood states, “Researchers…gave 140 undergraduates passages from either [Stephanie] Meyer’s Twilight or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/07/reading-fiction-empathy-study). The study found that:
“[Participants] who read the Harry Potter chapters self-identified as wizards, whereas participants who read the Twilight chapter self-identified as vampires. And ‘belonging’ to these fictional communities actually provided the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups. ‘The current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment,’ Gabriel and Young write.”
In fewer words: reading fulfills a need for social connection.
Flood also cites Dr. Keith Oatley, professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, who calls the psychology of fiction a small but growing area of research. In 2008, Oatley led a study in which 166 participants read Chekov’s story “The Lady with the Little Dog” or a version of the same story rewritten in documentary form. “The subjects’ personality traits and emotions were assessed before and after reading, with those who were given the Chekhov story in its unadulterated form found to have gone through greater changes in personality – empathising with the characters and thus becoming a little more like them.”
This is worth bringing up now, as we engage Hawthorne and especially The Scarlet Letter, because it is in this novel that Hawthorne makes the following statement, which feels prophetic in relation to these recent findings: “It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate” (25).
Hawthorne’s statement applies, in a larger sense, to interacting with and relating to people on a day-to-day basis. But his words, given that they are uttered in the introduction to a novel, a work of fiction, suggest the power of reading fiction. In this way, Hawthorne anticipates ideas we may only now be coming to terms with because the tag “exact science” is being fixed to them.
So let’s enter into companionship with characters perhaps unlike ourselves – though by no means entirely unlike us, that’s for sure. Let’s care about their pursuits, persecutions, and fates. As Hawthorne so eloquently states, let’s go out of ourselves to appreciate the sphere and abilities of his characters. Indeed, the ruin of fundamentalism is its hard-lined rejection of this effort for empathy, of which the persecution of Hester Prynne is the paradigmatic example in American literature.
Before Edward Cullen helped us empathize with the hard life of shimmery vampires, before Harry Potter fostered our compassion for the trials and tribulations of pubescent wizards, Hawthorne gave us Hester Prynne and a symbol of the struggle for empathy in the face of judgment more succinct than any set of fangs or lightning bolt scar: A.
* The accompanying image was commissioned by Harvard University Press from Sheridan College grad and Baden, Ontario, artist, Robert Carter. More of his exceptional work, including Hawthorne at different ages and other icons of American literature, at his website: http://www.crackedhat.com/